07/25/2001 12:00AM

Velazquez hits new peak at Belmont


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It was just another claiming race - $40,000 down to $35,000 - on Belmont's closing-day card but it was still a topic of conversation here as Saratoga got under way.

Call it symbolism, or a portent of things to come, but it seemed to mark a milestone in the riding career of John Velazquez.

Velazquez was tied with Edgar Prado for the jockey title at Belmont Park. They each had 65 winners going into the final race on getaway day, and as the field thundered down the stretch, the issue was going to be between Velazquez on Exaltado and Prado on the favored St. Sunset. St. Sunset closed gamely for Prado, but Velazquez kept Exaltado going to win by half a length.

Velazquez was leading rider at Aqueduct during the long winter meeting but this was the title at Belmont, one of the most competitive meetings in America. Top horsemen, recognizing the ability and experience that stamps Velazquez as a major talent, entrusted him with their best horses, and he made the most of the opportunity.

There are other opportunities ahead at Saratoga, including the one aboard the Mother Goose winner, Fleet Renee, in the $750,000 Alabama Stakes on Aug. 18. The best 3-year-old fillies in the country are expected to participate, and Fleet Renee, who also won the Ashland at Keeneland, would acquire substantial credentials toward a divisional title if she wins.

Fleet Renee is trained by Michael Dickinson, the brilliant English horseman who was among the first to certify Velazquez as an important money rider. He invited him to ride Da Hoss in the Breeders' Cup Mile of 1998. Da Hoss hadn't started in two years and required sensitive handling, but Velazquez, who turns only 30 in November, gave him a fine ride to score one of the most sensational victories in the 17-year history of the Breeders' Cup.

Velazquez grew up in Puerto Rico at a time when Angel Cordero Jr. was in the prime of his career in the United States and the sports idol of his countrymen. On a visit home in 1990, Cordero heard about the prowess of young rider named John Velazquez and arranged for some video tapes to be sent to him. A bit more than two months after his riding debut, Velazquez flew to the States, was riding in New York, and living with Cordero and his family as a student in residence.

Some four years ago, Cordero gave up the training of a racing stable to become Velazquez's agent. They have maximized their professional strengths, and Velazquez has advanced steadily as an outstanding young rider. For the past two years, he has earned a place among the top 20 money-winning jockeys, with average yearly purses of $11 million. He also has ambitious goals and a determination to achieve them.